Students learn best when they are interested in what they are learning. If they see the value of information, they will remember it and use it much more effectively than if they are simply told to memorize and parrot back. Focusing on a theme provides a context and meaning for children’s work. In progressive education, when teachers develop a curriculum that incorporates students’ interests, the power of the theme to motivate students to learn is amplified; this kind of curriculum is called “emergent” because it emerges from the interests and needs of the children.
The curriculum at Prairie Creek does not repeat from year to year because our teachers develop lessons that responds to students' interests. Past student experiences include:
Kindergarten and first graders who had an interest in pioneers learned how to make paper, churn butter, and make corn dolls, among other skills. They role-played different pioneer work and wrote books and plays about pioneer life. These classrooms have also engaged in studies of poetry, fairy tales, skyscrapers and cityscapes, the Dr. Seuss canon, coins and money, and simple machines.
Second and third graders followed their interest in farming and food production in a theme called Full Circle Foods. In the fall they harvested vegetables from neighboring farms and cooked a community feast to benefit a local food shelf. They then put into operation a schoolwide environmental program that in one year diverted nearly 5000 pounds of composting and 3700 pounds of recycling from Prairie Creek’s trash dumpster. Still interested in their work five months later, the students planned and installed raised-bed gardens that were tended by summer day campers. The next fall they cooked salsa with the produce they’d grown and shared it with the school. These classrooms have also been busy with mapping, outer space, and biography studies.
Fourth and fifth graders undertook a “mercado" theme, in which they visited a Latino entrepreneur center in Minneapolis and then developed their own businesses. These ventures opened for a community event and the profits were donated to a family who had lost their home in a fire; students had read about the family in the local paper and decided to help. Lately, these classrooms have also pursued their curiosities about engineering, current events, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (the culminating performance was spectacular!).
Every emergent theme we craft involves literacy and numeracy. Often we can incorporate authentic service learning as well. In the traditional model of learning, a teacher asks a question seeking a correct response from a child. In Prairie Creek’s classrooms, children ask the questions and seek information to help them answer those questions. Themes that respond to students' interests in this way make learning an exciting venture.